Book cover: Illustration of a pine forest.

Katie Holten
The Language of Trees

Our attempt to regenerate a damaged Earth requires creative and chthonic stimuli far beyond the necessary physical work of composting and planting, tending and conserving. With her new book, The Language of Trees: How Trees Make Our World, Change Our Minds and Rewild Our Lives, Irish artist and environmental activist Katie Holten has been inspired by the Gaelic tree alphabet in the medieval Book of Ogham to establish conceptual forests of language on the page, thus merging the inside and outside, as it were, of her abiding love of trees.

To do this, Holten has designed and drawn her own tree alphabet and had it converted into a reproducible digital typeface. In Holten’s downloadable font, the traditional A of the Roman imperial alphabet becomes an apple tree, B a beech, C a cedar and so on, all the way down to the serrated leaves of the Euro–Asian zelkova tree. The playful agency of Holten’s application of this ancient idea of an alphabet of trees is conceptually profound, perhaps most particularly in the digital Anthropocene. In 2015, she published About Trees, an anthology of short essays, poems, aphorisms and song lyrics, all on the subject of trees. Each text was printed in the Roman alphabet but also in a trees typeface. What was immediately striking about these tree texts was the canny simplicity of Holten’s idea. For instance, on the first page a key sentence from Borges’ story “Funes, the Memorious” describing the indelibility of trees had most unexpectedly become its own representational forest on the page.

Likewise, in The Language of Trees, there is a page in which Ursula K. Le Guin’s famous story title “The Word for World Is Forest” is translated into the trees font. Thus we see the sentence itself become arboreal as “The” is represented by the Tree of Heaven, the Horse Chestnut and the Elm, “Word” by the Willow, the Oak, the Redwood and Dogwood, and so on to the end of the phrase. The effect feels simultaneously ancient and modern as both canonical and experimental texts become embodiments of the reforesting of our cultural landscapes.

Writers included in The Language of Trees range from Plato to Tacita Dean, from Futurefarmers to Zadie Smith to Radiohead. When you consider that some of these tree texts have subsequently been planted in the ground, a whole new meaning is lent to the way great writing can come alive on the page. In concert with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, Holten has already led a community-driven project of secret planted messages called the New York City Tree Alphabet. One can easily imagine botanically endemic versions of this revived idea of an alphabet of trees seeding here in Australia and beyond. 

Elliott & Thompson, 340pp, $35 (hardback)

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 21, 2023 as "The Language of Trees".

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Book cover: Illustration of a pine forest.

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The Language of Trees

By Katie Holten


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